I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head – it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and refection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man. For this reason a woman ought to have a [symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious – we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:2-16 NRSV)
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth in response to issues they raised (1 Corinthians 7:1). Paul’s central concern in this passage involves the matter of head coverings. Immediately preceding this passage, he writes, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.” (10:32). Paul then expresses his concern that women were not covering their heads during worship. Although women could go without head coverings, doing so would offend those outside the church. Paul believes that if women fail to cover their heads, such actions would prevent others from receiving the gospel message.
Paul suggests that Christ is the head of man and the husband is head of the wife (v. 3). This is probably intended to supplement the idea in the proceeding verses that a man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces both his literal head and Christ as head; likewise, a woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces both her literal head and her husband. It is important to note that here we find women praying and prophesying in the church (v. 5). Paul writes that a woman having an uncovered head is equal to having her hair cut or shaved, which was shameful in this culture (v. 6). Women who failed to cover their heads brought shame to both themselves and their husbands.
In verse 7, Paul appeals to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, where we learn that woman was created for man not to be a subordinate helper but to be an equal helper and partner. It was “not good” for the man to be alone, and so God created woman to complete the creation of humankind.1 According to Gordon D. Fee, Paul is writing that the one who was created to be man’s glory was bringing man shame by keeping her head uncovered.2
Verse 10, “For this reason a woman ought to have an authority on her head, because of the angels,” is confusing for all interpreters. Nothing in the text suggests that it means that a woman ought to be under male authority. Rather, the verb used here for “authority” is always an active verb, “to have authority,” not passive, “to be under authority.” Nothing in the text suggests that the man is to be in authority over the woman. Most likely, it refers to the authority that the woman has over her own head. She has authority over whether she covers or uncovers her hair, but Paul is suggesting that she covers it so not to shame her “head."3
To interpret Paul’s use of “head” (kephale in Greek) to mean “boss,” we would be reading our current understanding of “head” into the text. Kephale does not mean “one who is in charge,” but, rather, “source,” “a place of generation,” or "origin.” To say that God is in charge of Christ (v. 3) would mean inequality within the Trinity. Rather, God is the source of Christ who was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Man is the source of woman, for she was created from his flesh. This understanding of kephale as “source” explains the reference to the creation account, and it fits with verse 12 in which Paul writes, “For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”
In verse 11, Paul writes “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman,” which indicates the equality and interdependence of the two upon one another for, as he writes in verse 12, “just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” The fact that Paul begins verse 11 with “Nevertheless,” and then goes on to describe how woman and man are not independent of one another further confirms that the authority spoken of prior to this verse most likely refers to the woman’s authority over her head. In exercising her authority, she must not forget her interdependence with her husband. Because man and woman are interdependent, both must consider the effects that their actions have upon the other. Although women have freedom to uncover their heads, to do so not only brings disgrace to them, but to their husbands as well. Man and woman must not forget their unity and interdependence, which is reflected in the creation account of Adam and Eve.
1. For further information on Genesis 1-3, see the following article: Genesis 1-3, by Allison Young
2. Gordon D. Fee, “Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2005), 147.
3. Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 63.
For Further Study:
“The Bible and Gender Equality,” by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
“The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church,” by N.T. Wright
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, with Gordon Fee
Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel, by Gretchen Gaebelein Hull
Good News for Women: a Biblical Picture of Gender Equality, by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
Listening to the Spirit in the Text, by Gordon. D. Fee
“Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of 'Head,'” by Catherine Clark Kroeger